Honeymoon on the Rocks
Cornflower skies, scree-covered cirques, and views that go clear to the other side of heaven: The High Sierra is famous for perfect days. Perched in our campsite over Chicken Spring Lake, my husband, Dan, and I were luxuriating in one of them. We had opted for a rest day, with nothing more taxing on our agenda than a desultory stab at cleaning our gear. We lazed around, admiring the upside-down mountainsides as they danced in the reflecting pool of our upcountry tarn. Down the trail, a couple approached, climbing slowly.
You can tell a lot by a way someone walks, even from a distance. Some people stride, others amble. Some work at the mountain, others flow with it. Watching these two hikers, the word that came to mind was trudge. They seemed oblivious to the sky or the lake or the stark rock cliffs. She was tugging on the shoulder straps of her backpack, pulling them forward in an exhausted gesture I recognized all too well. He wore an expression that tottered somewhere between annoyance and frustration. I recognized that, too. In our eleven-year marriage, Dan and I have hiked more than 12,000 miles together, and most of them have been happy ones. But on our first long-distance backpacking trip, we had worn those same expressions of pain and frustration. Watching the couple approach, I realized just how much we had learned in the intervening miles.
The woman's glance took in the evidence of our lollygagging: air mattresses strategically arranged for sun bathing; gear airing on the rocks; books and journals strewn about.
"There are plenty of good spots to camp," I said, thinking that if we were going to share the lake, I might as well be friendly.
"Oh, we're not stopping here." I could hear the exhaustion and resignation in her voice."He says we have to go on."
"Yup!" the man said brightly. "Five more miles!"
The next day, we caught them early. They hadn't made it another five miles; they hadn't even made it to the next water source. They had simply thrown down their sleeping bags and slept on the trail. We fell into conversation, the normal exchange: Where you headed, how long you been out, where will you camp tonight? He did most of the talking. They were going to hike twenty miles a day, he said, so they'd get to Sonora Pass in two weeks. He was a mail carrier; she was a secretary. She had just quit smoking. Of all the information, one fact jumped out at me: This was her first backpacking trip.
"Your first?" I repeated."And you're going to do twenty miles a day?"
"That's what he says," she replied. "Is that a lot?"
Maybe I was reacting to my own experience, remembering too vividly my own first trip in the High Sierra which also happened to be my honeymoon. Our packs contained a seventeen-day supply of food; our itinerary was supposed to average sixteen miles a day. I had been sure I could handle both the weight and the distance, but I was wrong. Very wrong. Five miles into the hike, Dan took a few pounds out of my fifty-five-pound pack. The next day, he took some more. The day after that, we changed our plans, slowed down and happily went on to enjoy both our honeymoon and our hike. We did about 200 miles that trip, and after it was over, I wanted to come back for more.
But this woman's introduction to the spectacular wilderness of the High Sierra was all jumbled up with blisters, sore muscles, and exhaustion, and to make things worse, her partner seemed to think that the solution lay in breaking in, pushing on, and hanging tough.
"She can do it," he insisted. "She just has to get used to the pack."
To which I responded, "You, sir, should be shot."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication